Mar. 13—WILLMAR — Decades after guiding a volleyball dynasty at Central Minnesota Christian, Traci Grussing has built another successful program at Willmar.
The Cardinals have had seven winning seasons in her eight years as head coach with a .680 winning percentage.
However, the only thing she has done better than win in recent years has been producing Division I talent at the setter position.
Junior Lydia Larson is the latest setter planning to take her talents to the next level after verbally committing to The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina.
"I've grown to what I've become now definitely because of my coach Traci," Larson said. "She's really pushed me and made me a better leader, player and person, on and off the court. I really couldn't have done or accomplished any of the things now without her."
Larson is Willmar's third consecutive setter headed to a Division I program, following in the footsteps of Carly Wedel and Esther Grussing.
"It's awesome, I couldn't be more humbled and proud," Larson said.
Wedel is a sophomore setter at South Dakota State while Esther Grussing is a redshirt sophomore at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.
"I think skills-wise, they are all pretty similar, but athletic-wise, they're a little bit different," Traci Grussing said. "Esther was pretty fast, Carly was really tall and Lydia is just really skilled. She's done probably more reps than any setter that I've had.
"I think Esther was the loudest and the most natural leader. Carly and Lydia were similar in that they're very calm on the court."
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Honing her skills
Larson's commitment comes after a stellar season with the Cardinals.
The junior set the school's single-season record for assists per set with 11.12. She tallied 478 total assists and quarterbacked the team to a 29% hitting efficiency. Elsewhere, she had 15 kills, 10 blocks, 108 digs and 19 aces as part of a 94% serving percentage.
Playing behind Wedel her ninth-grade season, Larson took over the setter reins as a sophomore. She says the biggest difference in her game since then is her ability to read the plays and understand the game.
"Learning what her hitters are best at, where they like the ball and being smart in the set depending on what's going on with the game all comes with experience," Traci Grussing said. "I think she's grown in those areas."
The junior has always been willing to put in the work. She believes that her work ethic is her biggest strength and it's shown from a technique standpoint.
She improved her hands and footwork within the Cardinals offense, but her biggest leap came when she mastered the jump serve.
"That made a huge difference. She's gotten much smoother with that," Traci Grussing said.
Larson is originally from Maple Grove and played club volleyball for Minnesota Select before her and her family moved to Willmar.
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While establishing herself within the Cardinals program, Larson attended a number of summer volleyball camps in an effort to boost her skills. Most notably, with her head coach's suggestion, she attended the Sports Performance Volleyball Camp in Aurora, Ill. after her ninth-grade and sophomore seasons.
Pushing setters to get in 30,000 touches over the course of their stay, the seven-day camp is billed as "America's Toughest Volleyball Camp".
"Literally, she would have to ice her hand, her wrists and her elbows at night just to get through the camp," said Nancy Larson, Lydia's mother.
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Larson considered playing for a school in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference prior to making her final choice. She eyed the University of St. Thomas in particular and received looks from a few Division II schools out of state, but her decision ultimately came down to one factor: the military.
"I've always been interested in serving my country, finding something that was bigger than myself, finding a different purpose and following a different path that not many people would take in life," Lydia Larson said.
She became open to the idea of serving while attending a volleyball camp at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, as a ninth grader.
Larson traveled to Charleston on multiple occasions and was familiar with the area prior to making her first official college visit to The Citadel in October.
"I just fell in love," she said.
Nancy Larson adds, "We just couldn't be prouder of her, honestly."